Why Software Development is a Craft

Craftsmanship has been used as a metaphor for software development. Pete McBreen argues in his book “Software Craftsmanship” that craft is a better metaphor for software development than is engineering or science.

I take the association one step further and claim that it craft is not just a good metaphor for software development, but that software development is literally a craft.

The Hand and the Eye

A key facet of historical craft is the intimate connection between the hand and the eye. A furniture maker cuts a joint with his hands, then fits the two pieces together. If the alignment isn’t perfect, he sands and trims and fills until the joint is true. It’s a cycle of shaping and observing.

A glass blower turns the bead of molten glass over and over in a steady rhythm as she shapes the glass towards its final form. Her eye informs her hands and she constantly sees the effects of the changing speed and angle of the turning rod.

Code is a physical thing. Though technically code is nothing more than some states stored on a fast spinning magnetic disk, it is just as physical as a lump of clay.

Consider the language used when talking about code. It is touched, shaped, moved, broken, cut, pasted, fiddled with, tweaked, and played with. It is the physicality of code that enables the feedback between the hand and the eye. It is touched and a change is observed.

This is why Test Driven Development is such a key practice in software craftsmanship. There was a time when a programmer would write a bunch of code and try it out hours or even days later. The time between making something with the hand and seeing the results was long.

When a programmer writes a little bit of test code and runs it, then a little bit of production code and runs it, this cycle shrinks to minutes or even seconds. The connection between the hand and the eye increases. The craftsman immediately sees the work of his hand.

Making

Another element that makes software development a literal craft is that software development is a process of making. Contrast that to engineering. What is the primary activity of an engineer? It is design.

A civil engineer designs a bridge that an ironworker builds. The electrical engineer doesn’t typically etch or populate the circuit board. She designs a circuit that is printed on a board and populated by either machine or technician. In contrast, the software craftsman doesn’t just design the software (though she does do that), she also makes it.

She writes the code that makes it work. There is little manufacturing involved in taking the made software and putting it in the hands of the person who will use it.

Sometimes there is a deployment to a server or perhaps a CD is burnt and packaged in a box. But often even these tasks are performed or automated by the maker herself.

Material

Historical craftsmen have always been makers. The potter makes a vessel; the blacksmith, a horseshoe; the weaver, a garment. These makers have always had close connection to the raw material of their work: the wool, the iron, and the clay.

What then is the raw material of software craftsmanship? What is the material of which software is made?

The material of software is language. Java, Ruby, C, Scala, Clojure, etc.: these syntaxes are the medium in which the software craftsman works. What makes this media so interesting is that the materials themselves are composite materials made of more primitive materials.

Beneath Ruby code lies an interpreter built in C which is compiled by a compiler. The most basic of which is built in an assembly language which is assembled by an assembler which is built in the most primitive machine language which is read directly by the computer’s processor.

Each new language emerges out of other languages as craftsmen explore the materials and invent new ways of combining and deconstructing what they have at hand.

It’s similar to metal alloys like steel. Iron is combined with other metals to make an new raw material whose strength enables the construction of enormous buildings. Each new language innovation gives the software craftsman a new, more powerful material from which to build both larger and simpler systems.

Tools

A discussion of software as craft isn’t complete without mentioning tools. A software craftsman does deal with the hardware on which his software runs, but the more interesting tool set is the software that the craftsman uses to write code.

The text editor or development environment, the unit testing framework, the continuous integration system, and the acceptance test system are the tools of the software craftsman’s trade.

Because these tools are built from the same raw materials as the thing being made, software craftsmen have the ability like historical craftsmen to be tool makers.

Learning

The final argument for treating software development as a literal craft is the way in which it is learned. A traditional college education in computer engineering or computer science produces graduates woefully unprepared to develop software.

The best way to learn how to make software is to sit down with someone who knows how to do it and learn from them. This is currently being displayed in many shops throughout the world that are embracing an apprenticeship model for training and growth.

This model has been used for centuries to pass on crafts from one generation to the next.

Software is Craft

The Software Craftsmanship community is growing and having some fabulous discussions. I think that this is largely a result of people not just using craftsmanship as a way to talk about or explain software, but embracing and practicing software as a literal craft.

The historical crafts have begun to inform us in the software craft and have helped us develop our practice. Most metaphors break down when taken too far, but software-as-craft isn’t losing any steam.

Perhaps that is because the association is more than metaphor and software really is a craft.

Doug Bradbury, Director of Software Services

Doug Bradbury is a maker, a thinker, a craftsman, and a learner.